Posts Tagged ‘slow reading’

You’ve Got (Too Much) Mail, And an Invitation to a Letter

March 4, 2011

Letter paper, with ink pen and ink bottleWhen’s the last time you took a day off from e-mail?  How about an evening, or even an hour?  How many times a day do you click on the In box?  Do you feel the urge even now?

If you’re an average worker bee, you get upwards of 200 e-mails a day, spending 40% of your work day opening, answering, forwarding, and deleting; and your work day gets longer and longer.  The most diligent worker bees head for their In Box well before breakfast and take their iPhones to bed.

Is this good for us?   Is it fun?

Or as John Freeman asks in The Tyranny of E-Mail, “How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”

That’s a question to give one pause.  And The Tyranny of E-Mail suggests we need one.  A great big “wait a minute!” while we ask, “E-mail, what is it good for?”

Well, it’s good for a lot of things, as we all know.  But as its speed keeps increasing, as our In boxes overflow, as our attention shatters into fragments, as our work day eats up more of our waking hours, as this rolling electronic to-do list keeps the horizon of completion ever on the move, we find ourselves in a “strobe-lit techno-rave communication environment” where the party never, ever ends.  And it’s least fun party on the planet, because all the ravers are sitting alone in front of their techno-screens.   No dancing allowed.

This is John Freeman’s argument, or part of it, and as soon as I read it, I knew he was my kind of thinker.  He’s no technophobe, no luddite.  He simply asks whether “there is a way we can slow (e-mail) down, so we can make the best of it while retaining a foot-hold in the real-world commons.”

You know, the real-world, physical commons of face-to-face interaction: the theater, post office, town square, meeting hall, bowling alley, voting precinct, bank, bookstore, shopping street, park.  Or the café, where we sit in conversation with a colleague or a friend,  and the social cues of expression, inflection and bodily presence help us interpret meaning and tone.  Where the sheer physical presence of our friend brings us sensory pleasure.

All these places and interactions give us what e-mail does not: the physical presence of others in the commons of civic and social life, a place filled with reminders of “the importance of sharing resources, of working together, of balancing our own needs with those of others.”

Being tied all day (and night) to e-mail also removes us from that commons of the natural world, the one we share with other species, and whose resources we depend on for life.  The one our bodies belong to, with their physical limits and hunger for the sensual pleasures of the world. (more…)


New Year’s Resolution: Wrap a Fast Year in Slowness

January 10, 2011
Red tomato-shaped pin cushion with strawberry needle sharpener

There's a reason my pin cushion looks like something from my garden

As you know, I like tootling along in the slow lane, making jam, planting onions, reading books made of trees.  Just this past weekend, I sewed up a satchel for my laptop. And if that’s not an emblem for the coming year, I can’t think of one that is. On the outside, you’ve got something hand-crafted. On the inside, a machine that’s a sign of the times: speed, connection, information, and oh that monkey, monkey mind.

Because 2011 is the year of the book. My book, which comes out in March. So while books usually take me to the slow side, this book means crankin’ things up.  My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas is going on tour.  Ten weeks on the road starting in June, from California to Indiana and parts in between.  And having just spent the last of my trust fund, I am become my own publicist.  Let’s not even get into the details of such a chore except to say it’s composed of a million little pieces that could well fritter away my brain.

So my challenge in the midst of the whirl is to do something slow every day, to bring it all back to the ground of stillness and contemplation.

New Year’s Resolution #1:  Take a tip from that satchel with the laptop inside: Wrap each day in slowness.  To start with, on waking, give an hour to writing.  Sit for awhile and breathe.  In.  Out.  And before tucking myself in for the night, have a nice, slow read.

fat, black question markWhat slow resolutions have you made for the year?  And what’s on your reading pile?

Links: If you’re new to the blog and wonder about monkey mind, read here.  If you want the scoop on My Ruby Slippers, start here.

Christmas Gifts and Glad Tidings at the Solstice

December 18, 2010

Oak King Winter SolsticeMy neighbor Amelia doesn’t make a big deal out of Christmas.  “Every day’s Christmas to me,” she says.  “I give and I get every day of the year.”

I call that attitude a marvel, now.  In fact, I’ve decided to adopt it myself.  So in the spirit of Amelia, I thought I’d chalk up just a handful of this year’s gifts.

Hummingbirds. Dozens of Anna’s hummingbirds landed in my willow tree this week.  They’ve been hanging around the garden, sipping nectar from the hummingbird sage, thinking their hummingbird thoughts.  It’s either early or late for migration, and they’re not saying why they’ve come.  But they like to sit in the tree and preen and stare at me through the window.  The glint in those little black eyes is even better than a visit from the magi.

My students aren’t hummingbirds, but they do bring me news from the foreign land of youth.  I’m especially enamored of my Literature and the Environment students this week, who just finished exams and turned in such extraordinary final projects I can hardly speak.  Which is what happens when you turn learners loose on topics they care about and ask them to teach someone else what they know.  They taught sauerkraut classes; hosted local food teaching dinners; created blogs about sustainable fashion, recycled art, music and nature, and community gardens.  They made sculptures, did public art installations, convened classes in their dorms, taught faculty about green roofs…. And they related it all to the works we had read.  Whew!  They’re a wonder.

The Biosphere. The sparkle of our technologies and the comfort of our lives make it easy to forget where we live.  Yet everything we buy, eat, wear, use and breathe comes from the earth.  We live inside its systems.  It’s our habitat.  Its health is ultimately ours.  May we honor the gift by doing all we can to restore it—and us—to wholeness.  If you want to join me, here’s a good place to begin, figuring out your environmental footprint.

Holly berries and leaves in snowSlowness. Slowness gives us time for neighbors and contemplation, asks us to ponder the wisdom of our choices before we leap.  It gives us reading and ideas and life close to home, a retreat from frenzy and waste.  At our tables, slowness means finding our food and food traditions close to home.  On this blog, it’s meant slow books and slow reading and digging in the garden.  Everywhere, it means knowing the place we live in the deepest sense, from its ecology to its human stories.  At Christmas, slowness means entering the darkness of winter with a quiet heart, seeking wisdom, celebrating the light.  So I’ll put a shiny bow on that one for sure.  Especially since this year, a full moon will shine on the winter solstice.

You. It’s been a great year on the blog, thanks to you.  Some of you arrived by way of the Slow Reading bit in the Guardian, some of you happened by out of chance, some of you were sent by friends, some of you came by because you’re my sisters or daughters or friends, some via Twitter or that Zuckerberg thing.  Some of you, for reasons unknown, arrived by way of a mad, global interest in spider monkeys.  Brave new world.

So, as the year draws to a close, I remain perched on the ambivalent edge of the tech revolution, knowing that embracing it means jumping into a sea of noise, and that without it, I would never have found all of you.  And that has been a gift.

Good Christmas, glad solstice wherever you are.  And peace.

Xavier de Maistre Takes Us on a Journey Around His Room; or A Broken Hand in Oakland Meets 18th-Century France

September 6, 2010

Normally this time of year, I’d bring you the harvest report from around the block and beyond.  I’d be checking in on the chickens, asking after the sweet corn crop that filled up a neighbor’s front yard, admiring some sugar pie pumpkins and finding out if anyone ate nearly as many romano beans as we did at my house this summer.  Man, those beans were good.

But alas.  While my neighbors gather in their late summer tomatoes, and the cabbages get serious about fall, I’m plopped on the sofa with my right foot on the coffee table and my left hand in a cast.   OMG, you might say!  What manner of drama have we here?

Thanks for asking.  It’s been a Wile E. Coyote kind of summer, so laugh if you like.  I do.  In June, I tripped over the cord to my laptop, flew into a wall, and broke my nose.  In July, I hiked a few too many miles in the Sierras and acquired a stress fracture in my foot.  Ten days ago, I took a little spill on my bike (which I could still ride with my tender foot) and broke my fall with my hand.

So you might say I’ve had some weeks of unplanned  relaxation.  Which puts me in mind of Xavier de Maistre, who also spent time under house arrest.   (more…)

A Grab-Bag of Good Book News

August 22, 2010

Ever since the era of Slow Reading came along, sometime last Tuesday, readers from all over have been sending me the news.  Today, I open the ever-expanding goody bag to share a few shiny baubles with you.

Books help kids do better on bubble tests. It’s not every day that I like what I read in columns by David Brooks.  Still, he’s always smart and worth a read, and this time he brings good news.  Apparently, two recent studies confirm what book lovers already know.  In the first one, a bunch of underprivileged kids each got to choose 12 free books to read over the summer, and surprise, surprise, they ended up with higher reading scores than peers who didn’t get books.  Personally I would have dispensed with the study and just given every child a bag full of books.

The second study actually surprised me.  It tracked 500,000 kids in grades 5-8, and found that kids with high-speed internet at home are getting lower scores on math and reading tests.   That’s a lot of kids logging a lot of hours not reading books.

Who Needs a Monitor When You’ve Got Books on the School Bus? Remember those mornings on a school bus crammed full of laughing, screaming kids throwing sandwiches and hitting each other over the head?  Well, it never happens on one school bus in Florida. The driver Miss Kookyi (aka Rosemary Peterson) found a way to quiet her little charges: give them books.  They choose their own books and read all the way to school, then write book reports for prizes.   The competition is fierce, and every kid’s a winner.  I don’t know if anyone’s given Miss Kookyi a prize yet, but surely she deserves one.

Convicted Criminals Get Reading Time Instead of Jail. Judges in eight states now have an alternative to sending offenders to prison.   Instead, they put books in their hands and send them to reading groups.  I don’t know about you, but this makes my heart leap up.  Some participants have never read a book before, and through reading and discussion, their lives really do change. The program more than halves the rate of recidivism, and compared to the cost of throwing people in jail, it’s virtually free.  Let’s send a shout of thanks to the program that makes it possible: “Changing Lives Through Literature.”

And finally comes this little goody:

Study Hall for Grown-Ups. If you’re ever in Seattle on a lovely Wednesday evening, be sure to drop by the Fireside Room in the Sorrento Hotel.  It’s a reading party.   The place fills to the rafters with people who bring their books, sink down into posh chairs amid the velvet drapes, and proceed to read.  Silently, together.  There are waiters.  Lattes.  Adult beverages.  Snacks.   This may be the best book event ever.  And it happens every week.

So there you have a taste of what’s in the treasure box.  If we had to sum it up, we would say simply, Keep Reading.  Give Books to Kids.  To Criminals.  To Seattle-ites.  In short, to people everywhere and of all ages with nothing better to do, because, really.  IS there anything better?

Keep sending me the good news from wherever you are.

William Least Heat-Moon Goes on a Mosey for Quoz

August 13, 2010

If you like your travels interesting and your books the best kind of slow, then ramble on out to find a copy of Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey. William Least Heat-Moon, who’s driven back roads and side roads and everything but Interstate roads for decades, may be the best traveling companion one could want.   What could be better on a mosey than the company of a well-read, curious, funny and brilliant raconteur?

A mosey, as you know, is a leisurely walk, and even though Heat-Moon travels mostly by car, the thing is, he’s not in a hurry.   Instead, he’s in search of quoz, defined as anything “strange, incongruous or peculiar.”   Quoz-finding comes easy if you know where to look, and Heat-Moon knows: off the main roads and in places that haven’t been mowed down by the uniformity, as he puts it, of “crapulent consumerism.”  In short, he seeks out locales with character.  And characters. (more…)

How to Talk About a Pie You Haven’t Eaten, or Why Read a Book?

August 3, 2010

This week, we contemplate M. Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. The argument, as I understand it, is that deep reading is passé.  You know, reading sentences, turning pages, dwelling in the life a book from beginning to end…waste of time.  Instead, M. Bayard promotes faking it.  You read a review or two, perhaps you even skim the cover or first page, you snatch a few bon mots out of the ether (net), and voilà. You can smartly join the conversation at a cocktail party.

I think I could use a martini.

Intellectual subterfuge is hardly new.  In fact, M. Bayard’s particular genius may be that he’s grabbed the copyright on skills known to undergraduates everywhere.  Surely even a few of them (not any that I know) would even agree with Bayard’s proposition that “it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven’t read it in its entirety–or even opened it.”

In just this way, I hope to do justice to M. Bayard’s book.

Now I will grant that not every book is worth reading.  Not every book is even a book.  (I hear a certain Bieber has just signed a deal for his “memoirs”).  But I’m not quite sure the cocktail party standard will quite do it for me.

Let’s say, for example, that we substitute “eating” for “reading,” and “pie” for “book.”  So, the proposition becomes, “Eating pie is passé.  Instead, we’ll read a description of a pie, just enough to fake out our friends.”

Now this will work, no doubt.  You can go to your next dinner party and talk smartly about pies you have known.  Just to give you some material, here’s this:

  • It was peach, homemade, filled with sweet, juicy ripe Freestone peaches I picked at the local orchard.  I made the crust with two sticks of butter, put lots of cinnamon  in the peaches.  You should have smelled the house while it baked: all that hot buttery crust, bubbling peaches, warm cinnamon.  And the taste…mon dieu.  We ate it warm, a scoop of slow-churned vanilla ice cream melting slowly on top.

Now I ask you, would you rather read the Cliff’s Notes about pie?  Or eat the pie?

Monkey Minds Unite. Or, What Kind of Knowledge is a Poem?

July 27, 2010

Wow!   One week, you write about monkey-mind and before you know it, monkey-minds everywhere write in to say, Amen, Sister.  They’ve commented here, sent emails, started discussions on other sites, blogged, commiserated, argued, wondered and been altogether jolly.   Enthusiasm for “Slow” has erupted so widely and all at the same time that I’m rethinking spontaneous combustion.

Someone may be about to jump in and say, “How ironic!”  Because after all, we found each other through the internet—the very same gizmo whose “Off” button we have pledged to enjoy more often.  Well, of course.

All of which leads me to the point of this week’s blog: Ambiguity, thinking, and the question of what counts as knowledge.

Ever since Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows hit the stage, the debate’s been on about the value of the internet and the value of Carr.   Evgeny Morozov, for example, equates Carr’s argument with that of a chap pitiful enough to denounce the telegraph in 1889.   Others reach even farther back to those who found moveable type disturbing.  (Personally, I’m not yet ready to give up on cuneiform, but that’s perhaps another topic).

Now in our culture the easiest way to make someone sound silly is to call them old-fashioned, and what could be funnier, really, than fearing moveable type?   “Ack!  The alphabet!  On little pieces of metal!”  (more…)

Slowing Down My Own Monkey Mind

July 17, 2010

This week around the global water cooler, there’s been a lot of buzz about Slow Reading.  And if there’s anything I like better than Slow Food, it’s Slow Reading–the kind we do when we’re thoughtful, focused, and engaged.  The problem, though, is that the internet, for all its merits, is making slow reading harder to do.   By rerouting the circuitry of our brains, it’s turning them all into monkey minds.

That at least seems to be the verdict of Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows…and of me.   I can’t speak for your monkey mind, so I’ll just speak for mine.

As you know if you’ve been tracking this blog, I’m an advocate of Slow.   Slow food, slow books, slow reading, slow life.  I grow a lot of my own veggies, make my own  jam, and buy from local farmers; I won’t buy an e-reader; my five-year-old cell phone is not shiny or smart.  I even make time in my week to do nothing.   But I also live and work in the plugged-in world.  Which means that after a few hours on the internet, my mind can get as chattery as any other primate’s.

If I were a stronger monkey, I would unplug for most of each day.  And I wouldn’t leave my browser open when I’m writing.  But I am not that monkey.  So today, I called in reinforcements. (more…)

Knowing Our Place: Learning from a Cracker Childhood

July 13, 2010

I grew up mostly unrooted, so when I read Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I wished that I, too, had grown up poor in a rural Georgia junkyard with parents so religiously fundamentalist they forbade my wearing pants, cutting my hair, or having friends over to play.  That’s just how good a storyteller she is.   But Ecology is even more than a great story, it’s an act of devotion to place.   Ray’s embrace gathers in the human tales of family and Cracker culture, but also those of the longleaf pine forests that once blanketed the South.    For those of us who lack her deep connection to culture and land, this book is an occasion for longing.

Ray’s rootedness fascinates me, as rootedness always does when I meet people who have it.  Outside the South, they’re not that easy to find.   Most of us in the U.S. are mobility incarnate, variously attached—or not—to a series of addresses, but without deep knowledge of the places we live.   Even if we feel fiercely devoted to our city or neighborhood, we rarely know the deep, ecological story of the land our houses stand on.  Ray’s book is about roots in that deepest sense.  Its chapters alternate between yarns about family and tales of the longleaf pine and its whole forest ecosystem: the complex interdependence of pine trees and wiregrass, indigo snake and gopher tortoise, scrub buckwheat and chaffseed and the Mississippi sandhill crane.  She tells that story, too, in a way that will hold you spellbound. (more…)